My son, Bennett, came home from the hospital three weeks ago. This was an exciting time for everyone involved, but, for me, the excitement was more like a case of nerves. I had just come through a rapid-fire series of firsts – staying overnight in a hospital, seeing somebody in real pain (my wife, no less), holding a newborn baby, being called “Dad,” and probably others I don’t even remember. Now, here I was with a newborn baby and absolutely no clue what to expect besides bottles and diapers.
It turns out that newborn babies aren’t very exciting. Well, they’re exciting ? only not in the way this first-time father expected. I imagined Bennett and I interacting, father-son style, right off the bat. But Bennett doesn’t seem especially aware of me, other than as a potential food source — which, I must admit, was disappointing at first — until I understood where Bennett was, developmentally.
I read an interesting article by Dr. Harvey Karp, a well-known pediatrician and lecturer which helped me make sense of it all and gave me the job description I needed for my new role as dad. Dr. Harvey Karp suggests that newborn babies aren’t fully baked, even after 40 weeks of gestation. He theorizes that human babies are born a trimester early for purely anatomical reasons: If they remained in the womb for another three months, their heads would be too large to travel through the birth canal. When a baby is born, he or she is really entering what Karp calls the “Missing Fourth Trimester.” This explains a lot of things, Karp says, not least of which is why babies don?t “wake up” until they’re about three months old, when they start smiling, cooing and rolling over.
What all this means for me is that what I initially envisioned as my role as father is not exactly my role right now. Rather than kicking off that father-son relationship in earnest, what I really need to be doing is playing the support role that I’ve been playing for the last nine months. Of course, this is a considerably more involved “support” role – because I’m feeding, soothing, and doing for a baby too now, not just for my wife.
In any event, the idea that this is Bennett’s fourth trimester has helped clarify my role in the hubbub that is now my life. I figure I’m like most other first-time dads in that I needed a job description in order to feel like I was contributing to this ever-increasing effort that is family life.